Presidential Lecture Series
Carolyn Abbate
Stanford Humanities Center


Music -- Drastic or Gnostic? || Magic Flute, Nocturnal Sun
Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women || Analysis || On Analyzing Opera
What the Sorcerer Said || Wagner, "On Modulation," and Tristan
The Parisian ‘Vénus’ and the ‘Paris’ Tannhäuser
Tristan in the Composition of Pelléas


From “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004)

Rather than bringing out the souvenirs and singing their praises or explaining their meanings one more time, I want to test the conviction that what counts is not a work, not, for example, Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in the abstract, but a material, present event. This entails seeking a practice that at its most radical allows an actual live performance (and not a recording, even of a live performance) to become an object of absorption, which means going back for a moment to a certain fork in the road and seeing what was abandoned there. In the 1980s, Joseph Kerman argued for a disciplinary revolution in musicology, urging a focus on musical works and their meaning. This new music criticism was not music criticism as usual, and we would not be journalists, an artisan class excluded from academia. Transcending the quotidian, how Bartoli sang or whether Argerich seemed nervous, musicology would deal instead with Rossini's La Cenerentola or Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. While Kerman's aim was to divert musicology towards criticism and hermeneutics and away from composer biography, archival history, and strict formalism, something important was foreclosed when old music criticism became new music criticism. And the something was not just Cecilia Bartoli or Martha Argerich but real music: the performances that were to remain in large part as marginal to criticism or hermeneutics as they had been to formalism, biography, history, or theory. Even for scholars like Suzanne Cusick, committed in principle to an "embodied criticism" that deals with music's materiality rather than with disembodied "texts," writing about an actual performance has proved to be the unusual option. (p. 506)

Musical performance on the whole, however, has been seen, analyzed, and acknowledged, but not always listened to, and if the pleasure given by operatic singing has had a sharp profile, the consolations and disturbances attendant upon musical performance in general have not. Maybe the untroubled prose styles are analogous to ritual behavior while concert- or opera going is a form of command and a defensive stance. But there is something about the objective mode that seems to protest too much, bypassing the uncanny qualities that are always waiting nearby in trying to domesticate what remains nonetheless wild. Actual live, unrecorded performances are for the same reason almost universally excluded from performance studies; they, too, remain wild. (p. 508)

Because live performances give us pause, we must consider the exclusions and stratagems entailed in reverting to souvenirs, to musical works in the abstract and their forms or meanings. It is to ask why the academic discourse devoted to music, whether hermeneutics' search for musical traces of, say, post-Kantian subjectivity or formalism's search for tonal patterns, is comfortable with the metaphysical and abstract and uninterested in the delivery systems that bring music into ephemeral phenomenal being. Turning towards performance means scrutinizing the clandestine mysticism involved in musical hermeneutics (more on this below) because clandestine mysticism could itself be seen as a reaction to forces in play during musical performance. That, at least, is Jankélévitch's diagnosis. Music's effects upon performers and listeners can be devastating, physically brutal, mysterious, erotic, moving, boring, pleasing, enervating, or uncomfortable, generally embarrassing, subjective, and resistant to the gnostic. In musical hermeneutics, these effects in the here and now are illicitly relocated to the beyond, through a passionate metaphysics that postulates the others for which musical gestures or forms, with the sounds they stand for, are media. Turning towards performance means considering music's ability to inspire talk of inscription devices, deciphering, and hieroglyphic traces, a metaphorical language that relocates the labor and carnality of performance in the physical motion and material products of machines. Finally, above all, embracing the drastic is to react to being given pause by finding out what might follow the resolve to write about vanished live performances, musicology's perpetually absent objects. (p. 513-514)

The question is not whether the culture-to-music highway runs straight and true or whether the argument is suasive or the documentation overwhelming. What interests me is once more a sense that the historical patterns (the emergence of fascist states) and cultural force fields (biologism and utopianism) and biographical data (Stravinsky's anti-Semitism) will seem less mundane and more securely affirmed when music is seen to express them. Again, the point is not that musical works are being explained as reflecting cultural values or biographical facts. It is not even that musical works are being said to reveal something inaccessible, some social truth not conveyed by any other medium, though this is an idea well worth scrutinizing in greater detail. The point is that these ideas and truths are being made monumental and given aura by music. (p. 520)

And yet hermeneutics relies upon music's aura and strangeness, its great multiplicity of potential meanings, the fact that music is not a discursive language, that musical sounds are very bad at contradicting or resisting what is ascribed to them, that they shed associations and hence connotations so very easily, and absorb them, too. Hermeneutics fundamentally relies on music as mysterium, for mystery is the very thing that makes the cultural facts and processes that music is said to inscribe or release (therein becoming a nonmystery) seem so savory and interesting. Music's ineffability — its broad shoulder — is relied upon so thoroughly and yet denied any value and even denied existence. This is the mysticism that will demonize mystery at every turn. (p. 521)

It is real music, music-as-performed, that engenders physical and spiritual conditions wherein sound might suggest multiple concrete meanings and associations, conflicting and interchangeable ones, or also none at all, doing something else entirely. Real music, the event itself, in encouraging or demanding the drastic, is what damps down the gnostic. And some florid antiarias to gnostic proscriptions against the drastic attitude are very much in order. Freeing oneself from the "devastating hegemony of the word" in experiencing performed music does not mean that the human subject has lapsed into sensual idiocy. Aesthetic pleasure, the apprehension of beauty, is not evil, nor is it just a hedonist consolation. Doubting that musical works spell out cultural data or simply mulling over the mysticism inherent in arguments that they do is not naturally appalling. (p. 532)

Music's cryptographic sublimity is a contributing force in the clandestine mysticism that appears as a bystander in musical hermeneutics, just as music's ineffability is what allows musical hermeneutics to exist. Music is ineffable in allowing multiple potential meanings and demanding none in particular, above all in its material form as real music, the social event that has carnal effects. The state engendered by real music, the drastic state, is unintellectual and common, familiar in performers and music lovers and annoying nonmusicologists, and it has value. When we cannot stare such embarrassing possibilities in the face and find some sympathy for them, when we deny that certain events or states are impenetrable to gnostic habits, hence make them invisible and inaudible, we are vulnerable. For, denying mystery, the perplexing event, the reticence such things may engender, means being prey to something that comes to call at its nocturnal worst, as coercive mysticism and morbid grandiloquence. (p. 534)

La flûte enchantée

Horace Vernet, La flûte enchantée. Lithograph by Gottfried Engelmann,
in La flûte enchantée, piano-vocal score (Paris: Schlesinger, 1820).

From "Magic Flute, Nocturnal Sun," in In Search of Opera (2001)

Still, one need not necessarily depart from the fiction to avoid the darkness. The Queen’s second aria, that dwarf star that emits so much musical evil, is several different aria fragments as one. Radically different kinds of singing appear within it, a brief declamatory opening verse void of ornament, a final section in recitative, and a big coloratura center. In the whole aria no single vocal style is sustained for more than a minute before being superceded; and the aria, though incredibly short, accommodates shifts of musical shape second by second.

Magic Flute score thumbnail

Even more extreme: the coloratura singing is set apart from that in the first aria, as from Mozart’s other bravura soprano arias, in one significant technical way. In her act 2 melismas, the Queen sings only arpeggios, no scales at all (see music example). There are no conjunct melodic runs up or down some diatonic ladder or other, no conventional operatic passage of the kind familiar from eighteenth-century seria arias. And with this technical departure, an unprecedented voice comes into being, one with no capacity for melodic conjunction. In this—and not in any simple loss of words—voice metamorphoses into an impossible device, a wind instrument unknown in 1791, unknown ever since. When this instrument-voice is echoed by the high violins and doubled by the flute in measures 73-79, the equivalence of voice and instrument is expressed as a set of mirrors exactly parallel to one another, in which one cannot say what is reflected, and what is really there. (p. 92)

From “Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women,” in Musicology and Difference (1993)

Poststructuralist female critics, in short, seem to occupy a rather elaborately ironic position. They adopt strategies inspired in men by “the feminine iconicized”—but they are not women reading like women; they are deluded transvestites who have put on the theory-costume of men, disclosing their secret desire to “see like a man.” The dilemma of the woman who writes seems, in short, to be that she can adopt either the (androcentric) strategies of traditional humanism or the (androcentric) strategies of poststructuralism, but in either case she must guard against being remade by her theory-costume into something risible or false. In terms of the jewel-box model, poststructuralist theory might be seen as crystal balls or magic turquoises. These items are marketed as objects that liberate you to “see freely (like a woman)” but you gaze into them because, in secret, they promise that you will see “like a man.” And they become ornaments on a woman weighed down by precious stones, a beautiful and glittering woman, on permanent display. (p. 231)

Musical performance enacts a bizarre drama, in which the performers — as noisy sources of resonance — shout out that they are creating the work literally before our ears (and eyes). We know this is not true: Wagner wrote Tristan. But at the same time we are deluded by the transgressive acoustics of authority that operate during performance. No single (and, in opera, all-knowing) composer’s voice sings what we hear. Rather, the music seemingly has other sources; it strongly encourages listeners to split the sonorous fabric into multiple originating speakers, whose bodies exist behind what is heard. The locus of creation is not, in short, simply shifted from the composer to the performer; rather, the fact of live performance encourages its relocation to other places. The phenomenological peculiarities of music’s production urge us to imagine originating singers, voices not simply that of a single historical composer, hence potentially indeterminate or variable in gender.

Author politics in music are thus in great measure also performer politics, for when confronted with human sources of sonority in live performance we create for ourselves a polyphony, in which the noise-making of the human individuals before us — as a little drama of usurpation that powerfully disperses the “composer’s voice” — encourages us to assume the other singers, inside the music. (p. 235-236)

From “Analysis,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992)

Telling the history of opera analysis, naming its most famous practitioners, constitutes a background to a more complicated issue: understanding the ideological and aesthetic problems that underpin analytical writing on opera. The central problem remains the necessity to cope with an art that mixes various languages (visual, verbal, musical); this problem has affected every writer on opera, and can be said to twist his or her own interpretative language. While opera combines three basic systems, an analytical methodology has yet to be developed that is capable of discussing these as they exist in an ideal experiential reality, as aspects of a single and simultaneously perceived entity. Virtually all operatic interpretation has been forced to dissect the operatic experience, focus separately upon the music, the text and the visual form of any operatic passage (i.e. ‘while the text spoken is this, we see that on stage, and the music does this’). Opera analysis deals monophonically with what in performance is a visual-textual-musical polyphony. To be sure, analysis often seeks for a relationship between these systems, yet such a search is itself born of interpretation’s inability directly to reflect or translate the complex simultaneities of opera. Analysing opera thus inevitably creates a fundamental schism, and its quest for relationships is perhaps driven by longing for a whole object that the act of analysis has itself unfused. (v. 1, p. 118)

Analysis of the music of opera tends to display similar methodological ironies. The 19th-century formalists’ view of operatic music as musical structure allowed our casual understanding of opera analysis as music analysis. While librettos have been seen as partial or incomplete texts, music has more often been regarded as a full text in its own right, needing no prosthetic aura (lent by the verbal or visual) to command our attention. The autonomy of operatic music is less secure than it might seem, and analysis of operatic music, like that of librettos, is often characterized by nervous sensitivity to the absent discursive systems, verbal and visual.

Adopting the two strategies established in the 19th century, the analysis of operatic music assumes either that music has the capacity to retrace meanings that originate in the visual or verbal systems and that analysis should seek these transpositions, or prefers to neutralize the question of representation, regarding operatic music as self-sufficient or exemplifying procedures found in instrumental music and, in thus establishing its autonomy, lend it prestige. (v. 1, p. 119)

By invoking methodologies familiar in analysis of instrumental music, such readings plead (in the case of Lorenz, overtly) that operatic music fundamentally operates in ways identical with those of music uninflected by verbal or visual systems. This move strives to reinforce the notion that, in opera, music alone attains the status of a full text.

This repression of the non-musical is itself as complex a phenomenon as arguments about the musical consequences of symbolization. Operatic music has, over the course of its history, attracted to itself a rich fund of negative judgments: as formally uncontrolled, illogical, excessive, subjective, vulgar, immoral, feminine. Associating operatic music with instrumental music may seem straightforwardly to reflect an historical-stylistic reality (e.g. that da capo aria rhetoric resembles Baroque concerto forms). Yet whether accomplished through analytical demonstration or an act of naming (for example, by referring to Wagner’s operas as ‘symphonies’), it inevitably bespeaks a desire to purify operatic music through a purgative association with genres uncorrupted by non-musical systems; significantly, it reflects as well a recuperation of operatic music to a masculine objectivity.

This purifying gesture seems doomed to fail. Opera analysis will inevitably face the necessity of acknowledging the polyphony between visual, verbal and musical, in an object it seems compelled to unlayer. (v. 1, p. 119-120)

From “On Analyzing Opera,” in Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner (1989)

Of course, any writer who, like Schenker, chooses to regard opera as music alone is seeing only one of the three primary colors. “Analyzing opera” should mean not only “analyzing music” but simultaneously engaging, with equal sophistication, the poetry and the drama. Analysis of opera might also attempt to characterize the ways that music in opera is unique; that is to address the idiosyncrasies that set operatic music apart from the instrumental music that has shaped our notions of analysis. (p. 4)

From “What the Sorcerer Said,” 19th Century Music 12, no. 3 (Spring 1989)

Interpretation of music can be enriched by critical stances borrowed from disciplines concerned with words. That is another commonplace, one continually refurbished and defiantly unwilling to settle down from fanfare into reasonable and unremarkable fact. Given the explosion of musicological writing informed by modes in literary criticism, historiography, linguistics, and philosophy, any hortatory words about cross-disciplinary contexts are beginning to sound merely obligatory, even a bit vieux jeu.

We might, then, object to the cross-disciplinary fanfares out of a distaste for last year’s hemlines. But there is another cause for skepticism. Fanfares can be perilous. If invigorating, they are occasionally deafening; they make it difficult to think. We sense that casual analogies between literature and music may be forced, twisted to make closed systems, methods, and answers. This gloomy noise echoes my uneasiness about the analogy between music and narrative, which I fear may be used unthinkingly to elude secret convictions that music has no meaning. More than this: if we fashion out of post-structuralist criticism a single explanation of how music narrates, we pervert the subtleties of the literary theory we have evoked by ignoring ways in which meaning can escape, and explanation fail. (p. 222)

If our little structuralist analysis has hinted that as an extreme case, a formalist/absolutist could analyze all music as narrative, yet still view music as void of specific expressive content (not to mention cultural or referential or ideological content), this hints that evocation of literary-theoretical analogies is sterile. What does it tell us if we speak of music with narrative metaphors (a modulation as a “departure,” a harmonic period as an “action sequence”), or catch at the skirts of literary criticism to give us new categories and names? Perhaps only, as Jean-Jacques Nattiez has intimated, that music analysis is itself born of a narrative impulse, that we create fictions about music to explain where no other form of explanation works. Perhaps the idea of narrative is so central to human rationalization of experience that we cannot resist pursuing the analogy of narrative and music, no matter how arbitrary and fruitless it might be. (p. 228)

From “Wagner, ‘On Modulation,’ and Tristan, Cambridge Opera Journal 1, no. 1 (March 1989).

My frustration with large-scale structuralist and reductive analysis is evident from my language and my tactics (both of which may seem blunt), but this frustration stems from suspicion that the ‘insights’ generated by such analysis do indeed shrink Wagner into the negligible, by the very discourse of the interpretation. What do we gain by saying that Tristan Act III is “in” B major? Or, more alarmingly, that it is in sonata form? Or that it is “unified?” So are many lesser works; the more unified a work, the more unquestionable its design, the more reduced, ordinary and negligible it becomes.

“Symphonic” interpretations may well consider the relationship of poetry, stage action and music in the same “harmonising” terms that inform their discussion of music qua music. [Karl] Grunsky, for instance, regarded Wagner as an infallible Gesamtkünstler; he claimed that the poetry was admirably symbolised in the music, falling into a tautological argument that was to become another ritual formula in subsequent Wagner analysis (music is at once hand in glove with poetry or stage drama and nonetheless purely-musically coherent, because the poetic structure is calculated to go hand in glove with the pure musical structure, and round and round). Indeed, most opera criticism, not just the Wagnerian, has warmed itself at this hearth. But the cosiness of the argument seems, again, dubious. For one thing, the music may well be self-sufficient to the extent that it ignores or even contradicts both the poetry and the staged drama in opera, and proceeds on its own way. For another, Wagner’s music may be regarded as driven by poetry to transcend the limited orderliness of absolute music and “form” — an animating idea that Wagner himself proposed.

From “The Parisian ‘Vénus’ and the ‘Paris’ Tannhäuser, Journal of the American Musicological Society 36, no. 1 (Spring 1983)

Perhaps the single most striking feature of the sketches in all three of the pocket notebooks—and of many of Wagner’s sketches—is that they were written without text. Most obvious is the case of the first Tristan sketches, which were probably made some time before the text had been worked out, and which appear beside the rough prose drafts for the scenario. Wagner’s notation of musical fragments without text does not mean that those sketches are fragments of a wordless and voiceless musical setting of the as yet unwritten poem, which one must then assume to have been thought out at the time the sketches were notated. The first sketches for the Venus scene suggest something quite different, an attempt on Wagner’s part to find a compositional solution to a problem concerning details of harmonic structure in the abstract. They seem not to have been associated at first with any specific verses or their proper musical setting. Indeed, it appears that here a specific part of the poem may have been invented later to fit the music. (p. 100)

From “Tristan in the Composition of Pelléas, 19th Century Music 5, no. 2 (Fall 1981)

But by excluding, for example, consideration of Tristan from an interpretation of Pelléas, one would be willfully disregarding the main subtext of the opera for the sake of the formal critical principle. The drafts suggest how extensive the presence of that subtext is; the quotations are only its manifestations on the surface of the opera.

One might even suggest an apparent paradox: that the historically earlier work was being used to interpret the latter. After all, as listeners, or readers, we can hear or see Tristan not only behind Pelléas, but—encouraged in this by Debussy himself—between ourselves and that work. It was manipulated by the composer to become a sort of hidden commentary on Pelléas, and thereby became more than merely an obvious model for the later opera.

The Pelléas drafts, on the other hand, may be thought of as one important reading of part of the Wagnerian system—or of Tristan standing for that system—and Debussy may be considered a Wagnerian commentator. He may even be judged a more distinctive interpreter of Wagner than the more familiarly post Wagnerian German composers. He received from Wagner not only certain technical lois, but used allusion to the operas which were the source of that technique to fashion an interpretation of Maeterlinck’s text, and to comment on his own musical reading of that drama. There are documents to which should be added to the theoretical treatises, the critical essays, and the concert reviews in the making of a Rezeptionsgeschichte of the major monuments of nineteenth-century music. Pelléas et Mélisande is one of these documents. (p. 141)


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